Bad Timing

R.W. Johnson

  • Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden, First Earl of Avon 1897-1977 by D.R. Thorpe
    Chatto, 758 pp, £25.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 7011 6744 0
  • The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years 1950-57 edited by Peter Catterall
    Macmillan, 676 pp, £25.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 333 71167 X

Harold Macmillan’s judgment on Anthony Eden, that ‘he was trained to win the Derby in 1938; unfortunately, he was not let out of the starting stalls until 1955,’ was echoed by Anthony Nutting: ‘he had for too long been the Golden Boy of the Tory Party, the glamorous Crown Prince awaiting the summons to mount the throne in place of the ageing Emperor.’ Indeed, a survey of historians shows that Eden’s short premiership was enough to earn him the title of ‘worst prime minister of the 20th century’. One of the merits of D.R. Thorpe’s new biography is that it enables one to sympathise with Eden’s own verdict (after Horace Walpole): ‘Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.’ Eden was a man only too able to feel, trying hard to be someone who only thinks.

The tragedy was the greater because not only did he display virtually flawless judgment throughout the 1930s (he resigned from the Chamberlain Government in 1938 on anti-appeasement grounds, then warned Chamberlain against the danger of a possible Nazi-Soviet pact, something almost no one else foresaw); he was also a man of courage and conscience, with a range of intellectual gifts and a degree of cultivation unmatched by any other 20th-century premier. He won the Military Cross in 1916 for risking his life by carrying his wounded sergeant, Bert Harrop, over fifty yards of no man’s land. They remained friends for life – the gold penknife Harrop gave him stayed on Eden’s desk until he died. In 1935, Eden and Hitler discovered at a dinner that they had served in trenches opposite one another and happily sketched out their respective positions on the back of a dinner card; Eden’s French counterpart felt a deal of trouble could have been saved if only Eden had managed to shoot Hitler there and then.

The friendship with Bert Harrop was not an aberration: it is clear from Eden’s diaries that he liked working-class people. Hereditary aristocrat though he was, he preached the breakdown of ‘our outdated class system’, which, he felt, did not do enough for the education of ‘poor people’s children’. After his resignation in 1938 he set off – as few other Tories would have done – on a protracted tour of depressed industrial areas in Tyneside, Glasgow and Wales, which he found ‘absorbingly interesting’. He seems to have considered himself a Tory by birth, but during the war he told Churchill that he ‘felt no desire to work with the Tory Party as now constituted after the war and unless we could repeople it, I saw little future for it’. He then went off to spend an evening with trade unionists: ‘It is no doubt unfortunate for a Tory MP but I am infinitely happier among these folk than in the Carlton Club, and they like me better than does the C.C. I am in the wrong party it seems.’ As the 1945 election approached, he began to hope that the Tories – now ‘discredited’ – would lose.

Eden’s aestheticism also made him a somewhat unlikely figure on the Tory benches. An early and passionate admirer of Cézanne, Braque and Picasso, he was a very knowledgable collector and took few duties more seriously than his trusteeship of the National Gallery. He was equally passionate about literature, and could quote Shakespeare at enormous length. He was an enlightened president and governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre over many years and supported both Peter Hall and Peter Brook at a time when their avant-garde work frequently brought storms of criticism. He had a voracious appetite for both English and French literature and liked to hunt down French novels on the Left Bank. In most un-Tory fashion, he formed an immediate and strong attachment to the French Socialist leader of the Popular Front, Léon Blum, who, to Eden’s delight, allowed him to browse in and borrow from his own large private library. It is doubtful if any other Tory MP snatched the time to read and reread Proust, Balzac, Maupassant, Zola and Stendhal, while at the same time reading a good deal of Arabic and Persian literature – in the original. Eden was able to converse in good German with Hitler and in excellent French with a succession of French leaders, and to cite Arabic proverbs to Nasser.

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